Some years ago, in one of the periodic urges to fix things that are not broken, it became popular in some Episcopal churches to change the wording of the Creed, just a little. Not illegal. Sort of. Without crawling through the theological and historical weeds, it had to do with where the Holy Spirit comes from. Today’s Eucharistic Gospel reading puts a spotlight on this (Jn 15:26-6:4). The Creed (I believe in God, etc.) is not only the unalterable statement of our faith, but it was a struggle to nail it down. For the first three or four centuries after the Resurrection, the followers of Christ wrestled long and hard (blood in the streets, rifts amongst family and friends, banished bishops from one party or another in succession — people really cared ) until, in the Grace of God and wisdom of the Church, through a series of councils, it was finally revealed and settled that Jesus was begotten, not made, the Word from the beginning of all things, God incarnate and fully human. This doctrine is not possible to understand only with the mind, but with the understanding of the heart, as revealed by the Holy Spirit. Filioque, Latin for “and the Son,” says that the Spirit comes from God the Father and God the Son, and the Gospel of John does indicate that Jesus is sending the Advocate (Spirit), so yes, and the Son. But the Eastern Orthodox Church doesn’t see it that way. I’m not a theologian of Eastern Orthodoxy. I have my hands full with the Western Church, thank you. But many Episcopal parishes dropped “and the Son” from “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The deeper I go into my life in faith, in seeking to follow the commandments the Father and the life of Jesus, the more these simple things become important, not in trivial ways, but in ways that open my understanding as to how God is teaching me about himself through prayer and through the Spirit which Jesus Christ gave to us so that we might understand.
But that opens the whole issue of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit had been known as the Breath of God, giving life, and the voice of God to the prophets, since the Hebrew Scriptures. But how the Spirit came to be worshiped and glorified with the Father and the Son in the Trinity is less clear. The Trinity didn’t just fall into place from the beginning. The recent Eucharistic readings from John for the Daily Office have been demonstrating that no matter how many times Jesus tells his own closest disciples that he is going away, going to his Father, is one with the Father, if you see him you see the Father, they still don’t get it. Because ears and eyes, and even the human heart, can’t understand the mysteries of God’s love in the everyday world without the Holy Spirit to reveal the heavenly world. We can be nice to each other, follow all the lists of polite behavior which turn up throughout the New Testament, but without the Spirit within us, given in baptism, reaffirmed in confirmation, and formed in prayer and the guidance of Scripture and our teachers, just saying that we are Christians is performance.
And if you wish to see how beyond language our grasp of the Trinity is, read (aloud) the Athanasian Creed on pages 864-65 in the Prayer Book. And, in honor of that great saint, as Athanasius was, please try not to laugh, because it does sound pretty Monty Python-esque. While we proclaim that God isn’t gendered, or a patriarch on a cloud, and that we aren’t exactly praying to or asking intervention of the Personae of the Trinity (or the Blessed Virgin, or the saints), in fact, we are. How else do we, poor creatures in a material world, manage to seek out intimacy in prayer, especially in petitionary prayer? Yes, with God’s grace we may have moments in contemplation, times beyond words, beyond understanding, when we are in the presence of our God, even filled with God the Holy Spirit. But day by day it is a comprehensible Lord and God whom we seek for wisdom and comfort. This is one reason why I stand so firm on Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, rather than descriptive names. And we are taught that we will rise with new bodies into a new Kingdom. So we are stuck with bodies. When I bow before the Trinity each time that I offer the Gloria Patri, Glory [be] to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, I am addressing somebodies, not disembodied vagaries, those whom I love with all my heart, more than my own life itself. Which is what makes it so hard to understand the Holy Spirit, who usually seems distant and disembodied. And yet it is the Spirit within me that makes me even able to glorify God, to love my Bridegroom, to trust my Abba, with dizzying passion.
So difficult is it to picture the Holy Spirit that the Third Person slipped into Trinitarian theology rather late, even though in John (14:26, 15;26, 16:7), Jesus teaches his Apostles that he will send the Advocate, a helper to guide them. Although when we read this now, we can say, Aha, the Holy Spirit, but as late as the fourth century (and well beyond), the church councils were focused on just what the relationship was between the Father and the Son. And for a long time most Christians, and that included bishops, favored the theology set forth by Arius, which said Jesus was subordinate to the Father (amongst many other theological twists and turns, too numerous to name here, all deemed heretical). If Jesus Christ is not God, as is the Father, no room for the Spirit as God, hence no Trinity as God.
Although the Spirit always was known to be that mysterious way that God breathed life into all creatures and who spoke through the prophets, I think that the understanding of the Holy Spirit after the Resurrection underwent the same kind of sea-change that had happened when Moses taught that I AM is One, and not just another Middle Eastern god in a pantheon, and that Jesus revealed God in himself, and that he was not just a wise rabbi. The Spirit now was accessible to all of us, a personal link to God, Father and Son, one which would lead us and guide us in the spirit of Truth. And like all great changes, it took a while to understand. It still does.
Discernment is about hearing and following God, largely through the Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:10 and 1 John: 4:1 exhort discernment of spirits, and that means recognizing God’s Spirit from the false voices such as ego, desire, Satan. Many theologians and mystics have taught ways to separate the two. A classic textbook is St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, with its daily examination of conscience (Examen) to stay on track. But actually learning how to live in this messy world full of messy people, and to hear God’s voice within you, takes practice, prayer, and trusted teachers and companions.
Jesus and his Father sent us the ever-present Spirit to teach, guide, even discipline and punish. Jesus redeemed us through the freewill offering of the Cross, for forgiveness and everlasting life. We, flawed as we are, receive his gift by Grace, just as he gave us his Body and Blood, and seals us in Baptism, to bring us closer to him in love. It is the Spirit which enfolds us in that Grace. As a wise friend reminds me often, breathe and pray. God will supply the rest. Something to work on through the rest of Eastertide moving towards Pentecost.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls divides her time between Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA, and Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She lives with her cats, books, and garden.